StAs a boy, Eliud Kipchoge used to cycle 30 kilometres, carrying milk to deliver to a neighbouring village. Then he would cycle back. He was paid 100 Kenyan shillings for several deliveries, less than a euro or a dollar.
He was the youngest of three brothers and two sisters, brought up in poverty by his mother. "I never knew my father," he said. "I don't remember seeing him. He died when I was very young. All we have is a picture, a photograph."
Kipchoge now carries the hopes of a bruised and insulted Kenyan nation in the 33rd edition of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, St-Etienne/St-Galmier, France, 19/20 March 2005.
In St Etienne/St Galmier on Sunday (20 March), the showcase men's long race promises to be an epic battle, not just against Ethiopia, who last year ended 18 successive Kenyan team victories, but against a Qatar team which has enlisted athletes from several African nations, especially Kenya.
Leading the Qatar challenge is Saif Saaeed Shaheen, formerly recognised in Kenya as Stephen Cherono, World record holder at 3000 metres Steeplechase. While Shaheen and other Kenyans who run in the colour of the oil-rich Gulf state returned to train for this weekend's championships in their native country, they were excluded from the traditional Kenyan camp at Embu.
"The team from Qatar is in good shape," said the 21-year-old Kipchoge, who won 5000m Olympic bronze, and gold at the 2003 IAAF World Championships in Paris. "It will be very hard. We would not let them into our camp at Embu, because they would have learned our tactics."
He confided that the impact of last year's defeat by Ethiopia, ending their team monopoly, had been: "indescribable. We were feeling very bad. Hurt pride. It was a big problem, but we are trying to forget the past, to focus on the future.”
"For sure, the defeat has increased our motivation, and I think we will reclaim our crown. The athletes of Kenya are ready to compete, tomorrow and Sunday."
Etan a taboo in his Nandi culture, prevents him from talking of beating rivals.
With the Ethiopian three-times double World Cross champion Kenenisa Bekele still distraught over the tragic death of his fiancée, Alem Techale, he would make no remark of desire to beat him. "I can't comment," he explained. "In our culture it is bad to say you will beat someone when they are not very well.”
"I can't say I will beat him. I can only say I will run my best. Kenenisa is in a bad situation over the death of his fiancee. I feel sorry for his loss."
He had not heard the English expression: "a hollow victory" but when we described the concept, he agreed that he wanted to race Bekele when he was running well. "We do not have a plan to beat Bekele, but we do have a plan to regain the team title," he said. "There is no plan to beat Ethiopia. There are many countries here, and we need to beat them all to win."
He denied that he was the man chosen to win by Kenya, or any suggestion that the others would work for him. "If we did that in the past, I do not know about it. We are going to work together, all six of us."
The course has several barriers, logs 40 centimetres high, sometimes three of them together, at eight-metre intervals. "It is a true cross-country," said Kipchoge. "I think the steeplechasers will have a good time." Kipchoge will not attempt the double. "The long race is the true cross-country," he said.
The milk run he used to do was young Eliud's contribution to the family economy. Resources were so tight that there was never produce to sell. "My mother had to work very hard. We were subsistence farmers, but we never had anything to sell for money. She struggled for us."
Was there enough food? Did he ever go hungry? If Kipchoge felt irked by such clumsy Western questions, he did not show it: "My mother taught us to be satisfied with something small . . . Now she enjoys the fruits of my profession. I bought her a house, and she is comfortable now. She is happy."
He himself has property in Eldoret, which he rents out. He lives next door to Bernard Barmasai, having bought the land from the former world steeplechase record-holder.
It was another steeplechaser, World and Olympic silver medallist Patrick Sang, who set him on his way. "He was from the same village as me. He gave me shoes and clothing when I started running seriously. He was generous to other young athletes too."
Kipchoge had no apparent talent at school. He did not even reach district representative level. "I was not training then," he said. "I was not so good at school, but when I left, I saw Patrick. I wanted to be like him. So I concentrated on training."
Doug Gillon for the IAAF